‘Narrative medicine completely changed my life for the better’

Haley (bottom right) with her family

As a young child, Haley Schwartz was diagnosed with a fast, abnormal heart rate. When she was older, she developed vasovagal syncope, a heart condition that causes dizziness and fainting. It got worse in middle school and by high school, she felt so ill that she had to drop out of school.

“I went to see Dr. David Thoele, a cardiologist at Advocate Children’s Hospital – Park Ridge, because I wanted a particular medication,” explained Haley. “But there are a lot of possible side effects, and he wanted me to make some changes in my diet first.”

Dr. Thoele knew Haley was feeling stressed about not being able to attend high school and worrying about her future. She aspired to be a fashion designer but felt discouraged by her condition.

“How could she study fashion if she couldn’t even leave the house? But I told her I thought she would be able to attend college, and I think it gave her hope,” shared Dr. Thoele.

He believed Haley would benefit from participating in narrative medicine, a program he co-directs at the hospital.

“Narrative medicine is telling and listening to stories,” he said. “Our goal is to facilitate healing, rehumanize health care and increase capacity for empathy and self-reflection. We want to create a more nurturing environment in the medical field.”

Part of the program includes a writing exercise Dr. Thoele developed called the Three Minute Mental Makeover, or 3MMM. Health practitioners write together with their patients in clinical situations, then share what they wrote.

“It’s writing three things you’re grateful for, the story of your life in six words and three wishes. It sounds challenging, but it can be quite powerful in reducing stress – especially when people continue to practice it at home.”

Haley admits she was skeptical at first. “I was only going along with it because I wanted the new medication. I’d been dizzy and passing out for the last eight years, and I just wanted to feel better.”

She was surprised to find it helped.

“It started my day with a really good mindset. No matter how badly I felt, it reminded me I had a lot to be thankful for,” she shared. “It also helped with my goals. I wanted to get my GED, I wanted to get into my top two choices for college, and I wanted to feel completely better.”

Dr. Thoele made sure Haley was on the right medication, which greatly improved her symptoms. She got her GED and was accepted into her top two colleges. Now she’s studying to be a fashion designer at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, although she had to return home because of the COVID-19 pandemic. And she still does the 3MMM regularly.

“Narrative medicine completely changed my life for the better. It gave me something positive to do each day, and it especially helps when I’m stressed,” she said. “I’d encourage everyone to try it.”

How you can help

Narrative medicine is supported by philanthropy, and the group at Advocate Children’s Hospital – Park Ridge is growing.

“There’s a lot of interest in our narrative medicine program, and our research showed that doing the 3MMM writing exercise reduced stress for patients, doctors, nurses – everyone who did it,” shared Dr. Thoele. “When health practitioners write with their patients, it creates a connection and transforms their relationship. Instead of ‘you and I,’ it becomes ‘we.’”

Please consider making a gift to support the narrative medicine program. You can also learn more by joining Dr. Thoele’s Facebook group, The Weekly Breather: Telling Our Stories.